Class and the Performative in Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills, and Stephen Crane’s Maggie

  • William Dow
Part of the American Literature Readings in the 21st Century book series (ALTC)


At the forefront of Whitman’s cultural program, class was publicly scrutinized by the nineteenth-century novelists of realism and naturalism in ways that would expose the normally invisible and often deliberately concealed affairs of political and economic life. If the effacement of self was one of the effects of nineteenth-century naturalism, as one critic has recently argued,1 then the foregrounding of a world in which action and meaning are inextricably connected to cultural transformation was another. Providing a voyeuristic yet also an analytic view of the lower classes, Naturalism was a perspective (and mode) of cultural change, emphasizing, among much else, the conflicts and changes with class attitudes in the United States. The naturalist obsession with atavism, brutality, and economic squalor offered a compelling way of representing the disruptive forces of class domination, warfare, and social change.2 The erasure of the self and the spotlight on social forces led inevitably to the oft cited naturalist characters’ disposition toward atavism and transgression. More particularly, naturalist characters generally represent unsettling questions about social inequities within the mid- and late nineteenth-century system of industrial capitalism. Going far from Whitman’s “divine” workmen and workwomen, naturalist characters brought to the consciousness of a literary America the existence of the under- and working classes, now cast as subjects worthy of treatment and concern.


Lower Class Urban Poor Naturalist Character Theatrical Scene Italian Laborer 
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  1. 1.
    See Lee Clark Mitchell, Determined Fictions: American Literary Naturalism ( New York: Columbia UP, 1989 ), 32–36.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    The issue of performative meaning is capacious. I am indebted here to, among others, H.P. Grice, “Meaning,” Philosophical Review 66 (1957): 377–388;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Randall Knoper, Acting Naturally; Elizabeth Freund, The Return of the Reader: Reader -Response Criticism ( London: Methuen, 1987 );Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Steven Mailloux, Interpretive Conventions: The Reader in the Study of American Fiction ( Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982 );Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    Douglass Oliver, Poetry and Narrative in Performance (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1986); and Wolfgang Iser, Prospecting. The meanings of the performative on which this chapter particularly draws include the notion that inaccessible realities can only be penetrated by staging them, by performing what is withheld. In Wolfgang Iser’s words, “what can never become present to ourselves and what eludes cognition and knowledge and is beyond experience can enter consciousness only through feigned representations” (“Do I Write,” 313). There is in this approach an interconnection of author, text, and reader to be conceived as an “ongoing process that produces something that had not existed before” (Iser, “Play,” 325). There is also a direct conflict with the traditional notion of representation, if representation is defined as a mimetic description of a presupposed reality. This nonmimetic theory of literature points to, as Winifried Fluck has argued, the special place of the literary text: “if literature is not to be justified by truthful representation, the source of its special potential must be derived from the fact that it is, by definition, different and thus ideally suited to counter dominant ways of world making” (197). Instead of operating as a mirroring instrument, literature, in this model, serves to disturb preconceived cultural constructions of identity, invoking what otherwise cannot become present.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    They did not remain immune from all of these assumptions. As Eric Schocket has suggested, class in mid-nineteenth-century America was never far removed from its ethnic and racial familiars. See his “‘Discovering Some New Race’: Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills and the Literary Emergence of Working- Class Whiteness,” PMLA 115, 1 (January 2000): 46–59. On the issues of race, gender, and naturalism’s common association with class polarization, see as well Amy Schrager Lang, “Class and the Strategies of Sympathy,” 128–142; Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class ( Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993 );Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    and Catherine Jurca, White Diaspora ( Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001 ).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    See Barbara Babcock, “Introduction,” in The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society ( Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1978 ).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    For one of the best accounts of the “sensationalism” of the 1890s, see Bill Brown, The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane, and the Economics of Play (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    On the subjective quality of visual experience in nineteenth-century American culture, see Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century ( Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990 ).Google Scholar

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© William Dow 2009

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